TCFA

Posted Jan. 8, 2015

Jan 25, 2012

An Honest Assessment of an Immeasurable Life

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Inside. Outside. Everywhere in between.

These are the three universes in which Joe Paterno lived his extraordinary life, and sadly but perhaps not entirely unfairly, they are also the three universes in which that life will judged.

Inside.

Outside.

Everywhere in between.

On the Inside, there are those of us who went to Penn State, those of us who grew up with Penn State, those of us who played for Penn State, those of us who simply love Penn State. On the Outside, there are those who have no connection to Penn State at all, who had never heard of nor considered the legacy of Joe Paterno before these last two awful months, who don't follow and in many cases don't particularly care for college athletics. And then there is everybody else—far enough removed from Penn State proper to not truly understand our universe, the universe of the Inside, but plugged in well enough to the culture of American college football to understand, on a fairly fundamental level, that there were 61 years of Paterno history before November of 2011, to understand there is more to his legacy than the awful misdeeds of a former assistant, to understand that answers to the questions that remain—questions about this man, and about his place in history—cannot be answered either easily or quickly.

Three different universes. Three different realities. Three different sets on which this theatre of life has unfolded. Three different reactions, each equally honest, and equally misguided, in their own unique way.

If we are struggling to reach some kind of consensus on Joe Paterno—and quite clearly, we are—well, there should be no mystery why; as individuals, we quite simply do not share a universe. In a very real way, and on this particular issue, the realities of our worlds do not align. What is black to you is white to us. What is true to you is false to us. And what you see as fact we see as conjecture, if not outright ignorance.

This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It just is.

I accept that.

I accept that whatever feelings I and so many others on the Inside are feeling right now are feelings that you will never understand. I accept, too, that you might consider these feelings we have to be, in a word, wrong. You see Joe as something that we know he is not. We see Joe as something that you know he is not. We are both utterly convinced that our view of the man is correct. And yet the truth, as always, most likely lies somewhere in the middle, somewhere among those who inhabit the great In Between.

Only the truly dispassionate could even attempt to put this enormous life into honest perspective. Only those without an agenda to forward or a war to wage or a grudge to bear could see through the haze of media frenzy and rapid-fire misinformation to form an accurate judgment of this coaching legend. Only those who could fully separate themselves from the here and now, and all that it has brought, could really even begin to assemble a true picture of Joe Paterno—a man who devoted the entirety of his life to a place, and to a sport, that I hold dear to my heart.

I love the sport of college football.

I love Penn State University.

I love the Happy Valley in which it sits.

And, yes, I still admire and respect the man who, more than any other, made them what they are today.

I am not, in other words, the dispassionate arbiter mentioned above. I cannot pass judgment on Joe Paterno without bias. I cannot offer you a full accounting of this man, nor give you a comprehensive and mathematical measure of his true legacy.

But you know what? I don't think anyone else can, either. Because Joe Paterno, now dead after 85 years on this earth, was far too complicated. His importance and influence was far too massive. His place in the world was far too blurred between myth and reality. This is not a man, you see, who can be fully understood days after his death, nor is he a man who will be fully understood five or 10 or 20 years after his death. I tell you this much: The task of judging this man now, in the immediate wake of his passing, is an impossible task indeed.

What I offer you here, then, is nothing more than what I can provide: A personal and honest view of a man I met only briefly, a man I spoke to either only in passing or in the strictly professional context, and a man that, despite his distance from me in most every way, somehow and someway shaped the way I, and many thousands of others, view the world we live in.

It may only be the world of the Inside, and so it may not be a world that you can ever understand, but it is my world nonetheless, and it is real, and I apologize not in the least for being here.

***

That buzz in the air on Penn State gamedays—that palpable electricity that hums from College Heights and on through Beaver Canyon and north through campus and all the way up to the cow pastures in which we humbly tailgate—is real buzz, a real energy, a real thing. It is there. Undeniably, it is there. You roll out of bed and head into town and the crowds build and you can just feel it; it permeates the atmosphere, it rolls down from the mountains. It makes colors look brighter and music sound better. It makes the food taste more delicious and it makes the conversations more spirited and, yeah, it makes a good martini buzz feel just a little bit better than it would just about anywhere else.

There is but one explanation for this phenomenon: Gamedays in Happy Valley exist beyond the realm of the Outside, and exclusively within the context of the Inside.

I've thought about this very issue many times, and though it sounds crazy, I believe there is some truth to it: When you walk into State College on a glorious October Saturday, with Mount Nittany ablaze in color and the sky perfect blue and the air as crisp and cool as can be, you cross a plane from reality to non-reality, from real world to better world, from the drudgery of the Outside to the ephemeral beauty of the Inside. It is, I must say, a truly wonderful feeling, and one that I share with all of my fellow Penn Staters, be they alums or students, friends or fans. We cannot prove it is real. We just know it is real.

Which is why, no matter what kind of team we trot out onto the field each fall, and no matter how much those State College hotels charge us, and no matter how terrible the weather might be, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of us descend on that Happy Valley for each and every college football gameday. It pulls us in. It demands our return.

We can't get that buzz, nor that escape from reality, anywhere else. It is only there. It is only at Penn State, our home, even when it isn't.

Our lives race forward and we grow older by the day. Jobs come and go. People come and go, too. We move from one place to the next, changing and evolving as all of us do. And yet, as always, at least for those of us on the Inside, one thing remains: Happy Valley in autumn, where time stopped long ago, just as we liked it.

And of course, this was part of the problem.

We idealized the place far too much. We placed too much faith in it. We assumed, quite wrongly, that we could always go back, that it would always be there, just as we remembered it, that we could always find our center again if only through a weekend trip to reunite with old friends, to tailgate in the shadow of Mount Nittany, and, yes, to see Joe Paterno, the man who built it all, lead those boys onto the football field. The man and his program stood at the center of it all.

We believed in that place.

We believed in that program.

And we believed in them because we believed in that man—the man who symbolized it all, who built it all, who made us believe in its enormous potential, and our enormous potential, who made it seem that anything was possible, if only we kept on believing in the ideals he held up.

That's the part that sounds crazy, of course. That's the part that seems, and maybe is, completely over the top. And that, too, is always the part where we Insiders lose the Outsiders.

***

I work in Philadelphia now, at a large university that fields no football team, and hasn't in many years. It is a fine university, attended by bright, ambitious students who are taught by innovative, interesting professors. It is a university on the rise, a university with a mission, a university with a keen sense of what it is, and what it isn't. I work with some amazing people here—diverse, accomplished, worldly.

Yet every time I find myself engaged in a conversation with them about this entire thing—about Joe Paterno, about the scandal, about Penn State, about Joe's impact on all of us Penn Staters—I find myself, very quickly, not engaged with them at all. Because within 10 or maybe 20 seconds of Penn State talk, or of Joe Paterno talk, I see that they have no earthly idea what I'm blathering on about. They don't necessarily get the football thing. They certainly don't get the tailgating thing, nor our collective passion for the Saturdays of Autumn. And Joe? Well, the very idea—coach as icon—is beyond them.

The questions are always the same: How can just one man—and a football coach, no less—possibly mean so much? How can so many thousands care so deeply for a man who spent six decades dedicated to a trifle, to a game, to 22 men battling for inches on a field of green? Why do so many so staunchly support a man who was far too proud or far too selfish to realize that he had grown far too old to coach, to even fulfill a modicum of his responsibilities as head of a major college football program? How could so many stand by a man who, in the end, declared himself not "adequate" enough (his own words) to do something as fundamental as call the police when confronted with horrifying allegations? The adoration, the sadness, the loyalty—where does it come from? How can it be?

And of course, when these questions are asked, either vocally, or via body language, or by the simple narrowing of their yes, I have no answers at all.

Which is why, I suppose, I am writing here today.

In the avalanche of words and sound bites and mostly uninformed opinions that have cascaded down upon our once Happy Valley over the past two months, much has been lost, so very much indeed. Not the least of which is this: The entirety of Joe Paterno's life before November of 2011.

And this: A lifetime of good works and heartfelt dedication to a school and a place and those who either studied or lived there.

And this: An influence that stretches far beyond the white lines of the gridiron, far beyond the gates of Penn State's sleepy, stately campus, far beyond the city limits of State College and, yes, far beyond the bounds of Jerry Sandusky's reign of terror.

If we are to judge Joe Paterno in part for what he did not do when given information about a man who once worked for him—and we have—then we must also judge Joe Paterno for the enormous contributions he made to his family, to his university, to his football team, to his players, to his players' families, to the students of Penn State, to the men who competed against him, to the game he helped grow, and to the world—the world of the Inside, a world that I so proudly and so gratefully inhabit—that he shaped, and molded, and crafted, almost entirely for the better.

***

You must know this, however: None of us on the Inside always agreed with Joe.

To be frank, in a strictly football sense, he often drove us insane.

Because even while we knew, deep down in our hearts, that there would be no Penn State football without this man, we still felt entitled (and we were, I suppose; it is only football, after all) to weigh in, each and every week, on the goings on of his and our football program. And yes, in recent years, our grumblings and complaints grew only louder.

From roughly 1966, when he took over as head coach, until 1999, when a star-laden team of astounding potential—the last truly elite Paterno team, from a talent standpoint—had its hearts broken by the Minnesota Golden Gophers on an otherwise perfect Homecoming day, Joe's teams were, as a rule, outstanding. There were occasional down years, of course, but we on the Inside knew those down years were merely bumps in an otherwise perfect ride toward enormous success; even in the wake of one of those bad years, we as Penn Staters knew that another Top 10 team was only a year away. We knew the hotshot high schoolers would still flock to Happy Valley. We knew the Penn State Football Machine was firing on all cylinders, and we knew it would keep on firing on all cylinders, because we knew the man running it—the great Joe Paterno—was still the best in the game.

It's difficult to remember those days now, but believe me, there was a time—a long, long time—when Joe Paterno stood absolutely unparalleled at his craft. Whatever Nick Saban is today, whatever Pete Carroll was in the 2000s, whatever Frank Leahy was in the 1940s and whatever Knute Rockne was in the 1920s, well, that was Joe. For three decades. He was the smartest guy in the room. He worked harder than his rivals. He pushed his players to the limit, drove them crazy, really, and in so doing, turned the average into the transcendent. He was the ultimate closer on the recruiting trail, a master of the college football sales pitch.

Perhaps most famously, however, there was this: Nobody, and I mean nobody, could draw up a gameplan like Joe Paterno. Strategically, he was without peer, and as a result, the wins came in bunches. For those three decades—late 1960s through late 1990—there wasn't a better, more consistent, most successful football program in America. Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions won national championships and they won bowl games and they posted 10-win seasons with regularity.

They hit you harder than you had ever been hit. They rarely made mistakes. They were fast. They were feared. They wore black shoes, and white helmets, and blue jerseys. What they didn't wear was their names on their backs, because that wasn't the Penn State way—which is to say, of course, it wasn't the Joe Paterno way.

You see, if played for Joe Paterno, if you wanted to wear those bland white helmets, if you wanted to be a Penn Stater, there were rules to be followed, standards to live up to, an ideal to aspire to. The man did not demand perfection, but he did demand personal excellence, and commitment, in most every facet of one's life; life was to be lived to the fullest and best, not only between those white lines, but in the real world as well.

Joe's actions made it clear: He was more than a football coach, and he wanted his players to be more than football players, and he wanted Penn State to be more than just a football school. It was a great, and honest, and simple message, and yeah, we all bought in.

When Joe told us to believe in ourselves, to believe in our university, to commit to excellence, to be curious, to be bright, to live with dignity, to exude class, to live not only as individuals within the world but to live as Penn Staters for the world, we wanted to do so. We really, really wanted to do so.

We wanted to make him proud. We wanted to meet his expectations. We wanted to put the work in. We wanted to do what he asked.

In exchange, all we asked for was complete and utter perfection.

We wanted (demanded, really) that the program live up to the ideals of the Grand Experiment. We wanted (demanded, really) Joe to be out there, preaching the good word of college football at its best to an increasingly cynical sporting world. We wanted (demanded, really) him to be precisely what we made him into: A symbol, a legend, and the living, breathing incarnation of The Penn State Way.

Most pointedly, we wanted (expected, really) him to keep winning. Relentlessly.

Which, of course, was impossible. All of it.

We asked too much of the man off the field. We asked too much of him on it. The program couldn't always live up to its leader's own lofty standards. There were legal troubles and players who might charitably be called "recruiting mistakes." There were, starting in the 2000s, more and more losses, and more and more disappointments, on those once glorious Autumn Saturdays. The cracks in the foundation spread, the old man grew far too frail and far too weak to fully repair them, and though there were still moments of grace and joy—that win over Ohio State in 2001, the Larry Johnson season in 2002, the Orange Bowl miracle team of 2005, the Darryl Clark bunch in 2008—we all saw what was happening, even as we didn't see it at all.

The Joe that once existed was no more; all of the energy and drive and purpose and frenetic belief that allowed him to build Penn State, on the field and off of it, into a meteoric powerhouse was gone.

He had morphed from man to myth, from human to mere symbol. He was there, and yet he wasn't. He wasn't doing the job anymore. We knew it. We all knew it. And though we complained, we never complained too loudly, because after all, it was Joe, and after all he had given us, didn't we at least owe him one more year? And another? And another? And ...

***

That was his mistake, and ours. He stayed too long.

He stayed far, far too long.

Let us face up to this much: Joe Paterno was a flawed man, utterly human like the rest of us. For all of the good he did and all of the lives he shaped and all of the positive influence he cast over the world of the Inside, he was, like many other super-powerful man, anything but a saint. Nobody achieves such lofty station in life without having a certain cunning and ruthlessness of character. Nobody runs a major college football program without being able to make the kinds of decisions that many of us would shrink from. Nobody holds onto such a job for 50 years without being a master politician, an expert wielder of influence, an able back-room dealer.

The stories and anecdotes are out there: Joe was not always easy to work for, or work with. He could be dismissive of journalists, demanding of his staff, unforgiving of his players. He could be vindictive and petty. He could hold a grudge. And, yes, he was, in one major respect, selfish.

He was selfish for staying as long as he did. He was selfish for insisting that he was the best man for the job, even when he very clearly wasn't. He was selfish for trying to explain away why he wasn't fulfilling such fundamental aspects of his job.

He did not recruit in those last years. He coached from the press box, whatever that means. He delegated. He studied film at home, instead of the office. He lost touch with his players. He lost touch with the game. He hung on, and everyone let him.

For a man so intelligent, so incisive, so fully understanding of the flaws and frailties of the human condition, this is something I'll never quite understand. I don't know why he couldn't walk away. I don't know why he wouldn't move on. I don't know why he didn't or couldn't see the value in life after football; indeed, for a man who made it so clear that he was about so much more than the game, the idea that he could not leave it stands as a fairly enormous contradiction.

There is but only one explanation for this flaw of his, this inability to see that his coaching days were past.

He was, as has been reported many times over, terrified to retire, because he believed in all honesty that when he retired, he would die.

Turns out he was right.

There was so much to this man, and yet in some way, it was the game of football that formed his center, his foundation. Through football, he found family, and influence, and a home, and a life. Only through football. So when football was taken away, we can only assume, the sense of loss must have been enormous. Crushing. And perhaps it was too much.

The cliche at this point is to say that Joe Paterno died of a broken heart. Which, of course, is not entirely true; mostly, he died of cancer.

But you'd have to be cynical person indeed to believe this man wasn't struggling, and mightily so, with the fact that, with one phone call, he had the one thing he held onto for so very long taken away—ripped from him, really—and that there was nothing he could ever do to get it back.

***

So we here on the Inside are left with the sadness.

Sadness for the tragedy that unfolded in our midst, yes, and sadness for the fact that Joe fell short of his own expectations when confronted with it. But sadness, too—and, no, we make no apologies here—for the fact that, to some, Joe Paterno will always be seen as a failed man, when he very clearly was anything but.

We feel sadness because the enormous good this man did—for his game, for the hundreds of men he coached, for the students he mentored, for the university he served, for the town he lived in—will be somewhat lost in the shuffle. We feel sadness because we on the Inside will perhaps never be able to express our sorrow for his loss, or express our gratitude for all he gave us, without having some on the Outside view us as lemmings, as blind fools, as apologists.

But we are not that. We are not any of that.

We simply live life on the Inside, which is our reality just as much as your reality is your reality, and as such, we can say with complete honesty that we were privileged to have lived and learned and worked in the midst of the great Joe Paterno, a man of vast importance, a man of true ideals, a man who could motivate, a man who could inspire, a man who lived the American dream, and made us believe in that dream, too.

I said at the top of this column that it would be impossible, at this moment so near his passing, to even begin to put this man's life into context. And yes, I still believe that to be true.

But I am sitting here at 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night, a bourbon at my side and a tear in my eye, writing about a man that I barely know at all.

I am writing with enormous sadness. I am writing with sincere admiration. I am writing with a sense of loss that I know I could never explain, not in a million words, to those who inhabit the Outside.

Say what you will, but I believe this moment in this reality—me, my bourbon, my computer, my tears, my sadness, my sense of loss, my very desire to write these words—means something.

It means Joe Paterno mattered.

He mattered to me. He mattered to millions of others. He will matter to millions more, for years and years to come, and justifiably so.

I did not always agree with you, Joe.

I did not idolize you.

I never believed you were perfect.

But I always respected you. I always admired you. I always believed in you.

Millions of others did, too.

For that, you should be proud. So very, very proud.

Rest in peace, Joe.

You fulfilled your promise.

You made your impact.

You deserve your rest.

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